Josh Malerman’s debut Bird Box has a terrifying premise. There’s something out there. Something lurking and waiting, something that will drive you mad if you catch even a glimpse, mad enough to kill. Survivor Malorie wants to escape with her children, but venturing into the outside world means donning a blindfold and hoping to make it out alive. In this interview, Malerman shares what sparked his interest in horror, the connection between his writing and his music, and what the future holds for Malorie. The bad news is… you’ll have to open your eyes to read it.
Bookish: Your bio doesn’t mention you as a writer, but as the leader of the rock band The High Strung. What made you decide to write a novel?
Josh Malerman: The writing is what got me into the band to begin with. I’ve been friends with Derek (drums) and Chad (bass) since we were 11 years old. They’d already been playing music by then. I was writing: poems, short stories, comic books. When we were around 19, Derek, Chad, and a few other friends were playing music together, but they didn’t have a songwriter. So they asked me to give it a go, me being the only writer they knew.
In hindsight, what they asked is insane. You can’t expect a fella to write songs just because he tries to write books! But, what can I say? It worked. I sat down at a Farfisa organ, Chad showed me a C chord, and I was bitten almost immediately. Fell madly in love. From that moment on, it’s been books and songs, side by side.
Bookish: Bird Box is utterly creepy. Anyone who so much as opens their eyes is probably going to become a killer. Did some incident inspire this dark nightmare? Or something you read?
JM: Nothing in particular that I read inspired the book, but then again, every single thing I read before writing it was an inspiration.
I wrote the rough draft for Bird Box before The Road [and] The Happening came out. Bird Box‘s plot is similar to The Happening. In fact, I had a pair of mental breakdowns when I encountered both those works of art, thinking Bird Box would simply never see the light of day. At some point, I had to swallow it that Bird Box might get lost in the shuffle. Of course, it didn’t. Instead, it’s opened a door for me, one I happily stepped through.
So what did influence Bird Box? Well, I’ve had a crush on Medusa since about 1985. Maybe the book is an ode to her:
Don’t get upset, but the characters in my book can’t look upon their “enemies” either.
I love you,
Bookish: What were the challenges of writing for characters who are essentially blind? Did you do any real life experiments to discover how your other senses pick up when you’re blindfolded?
JM: A little. Though I wish I had done more, if only for the sake of giving you a better answer. I did walk around the apartment with my eyes closed and, more than once, one of my five finches brushed against my hand, my neck, my face. I’m sure that had something to do with something.
Bookish: What sends humans into madness seems to be getting a glimpse of something that our minds cannot comprehend. That is truly out of Lovecraft. Who are your other favorite horror writers?
JM: The Mist by Stephen King was more or less my introduction to that Lovecraftian “overlapping of dimensions.” I like Lovecraft, but I don’t know if I know him well enough to consider him a “favorite.” There are people who devote their lives to that guy. A whole shelf has grown in the bookstores based on his stuff.
Truth is, I love all the horror guys and girls: Gord Rollo, Shirley Jackson, Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, Dan Simmons, Thomas Ligotti. Each one of them brings something wonderfully different and, because I love the genre, I love those who love the genre too. And I hope the genre ends up loving me back. I think it will, but I understand I’ve got to earn that love.
After college I went on a real big classics kick. Read everything by Faulkner, Hemingway, Woolf, Proust, Dostoevsky. And that classics train dropped me off at Dracula. Halfway through it, I understood I’d never be going back, never “leaving” the genre again. Since then, I’ve been on a fairly strict horror diet.
Bookish: What are your five favorite scary movies? And why?
JM: Twilight Zone: The Movie because it was my first.
Creepshow because it brought E.C. Comics to life, and because the soundtrack is fantastic.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre because of everything about it.
Evil Dead because it completely represents horror as a dark “art.”
Under the Skin because I just saw it.
But this is just five. I could list 500.
Bookish: Your protagonist Malorie seems at times very cruel to her young children, Boy and Girl. How did you balance her need to protect them at all costs while still keeping her a person the reader can like?
JM: It’s possible that the alternating timelines did that for me. We’re able to catch Malorie, simultaneously, in the before and after. Here she is innocent enough; here she is borderline abusive. If you notice, there aren’t many scenes detailing the transformation, the four years she spent raising the kids alone. The timeline gave me a chance to show two very different sides of her, making something of a balancing act on its own.
Bookish: You’ve created a crisis no one’s ever seen, but it comes off as so real. Did you do research into breakdowns of civilization, or did you wing it?
JM: “Wing it” sounds a little too easy breezy. The only real research I did for the book was what happens to a woman’s body during the trimesters of her pregnancy. The thing is… I’m not convinced it is end times in Bird Box. Most apocalyptic fiction makes it very clear that it’s the end of the world. But Bird Box hasn’t convinced me of that. Is Bird Box instead a suburban neurotic nightmare? I don’t think so. But it’s fun to consider.
Bookish: Will we find out what happens to the survivors of Bird Box?
JM: I’m 100% not opposed to writing a sequel. The only thing is, I’ve got a lot of ideas, a lot of rough drafts. It’d feel a little unlike me to stay in the same story for too long. But we don’t have to wait 30 years either. How about we find out a little more about Malorie two or three books from now? I like that idea.
Josh Malerman is the lead singer and songwriter for the rock band The High Strung. He lives in Ferndale, Michigan.